When it comes to selecting the best reading material, follow the PROMPT technique. This stands for Presentation, Relevance, Objectivity, Method, Provenance, and Timeliness. Consider all of these factors and evaluate resources based on them. Each refers to an aspect of different resources that make them worth considering.
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The PROMPT Method
As you read this chapter, you might have wondered if books were the be all and end all of reading. What about blog posts, forum posts, the news, comics, novels, and magazines? The world is brim-full of things to read, and the internet brings an unimaginable abundance of material to our fingertips. But the truth is that quantity is never a replacement for quality, and just because something exists, doesn’t mean you have to read it.
Being as spoilt for choice as the modern reader is today, discernment becomes more important than ever. Thanks to the internet, compared to the past, the publishing barrier to entry is extremely low, and today anyone can say anything—including outright lies and misinformation. A responsible reader who is committed to true learning will pay attention to the quality of what they read, and never forget their responsibility to read wisely and broadly.
The so-called “Prompt” reading criteria method can help you not only select the best material but avoid creating a “filter bubble” where you are never exposed to anything outside of what you already know. Also, you save time by not reading pointless information or unfounded opinion masquerading as fact, and give yourself more opportunity to develop as neutral a view as possible, so your own opinions are properly supported.
The PROMPT criteria for appraising texts
P is for Presentation
How is the information presented—is it laid out properly? Is it clear and succinct and can you find the information you’re looking for? A low-quality presentation may not always mean low-quality information, but it could very well suggest poor organization. A neater, more concise book may suit you better if the presentation is lacking.
Example: Many “fake news” sites set themselves up to mimic more official-looking governmental bodies, but a quick look will show you that it’s all a ruse—the information may be nothing more than a fringe group’s unfounded opinion on the topic.
R is for relevance
When you scan and skim, does this text look like it fits your needs and goals? Is it written for you as the audience, to your needs and at your particular level of understanding? Basically, you need to understand whether the material has a chance of helping you achieve what you need to achieve. It can be a brilliant piece of writing—but that doesn’t mean it will help you on your mission of learning.
Example: You may be considering reading a scholarly journal article about the efficacy of a certain agricultural technique only to realize that it was created in a completely different country with a different climate and geography. It’s a great paper, it just has nothing to do with your interests!
O is for objectivity
Closely related to this is the neutrality of the information presented. But be careful—very little in life is “objective fact,” even when people swear they are 100 percent bias free!
Is something being sold to you? Who has sponsored or funded the publication and why? What’s the agenda? Who are the vested interests here and how do they benefit from your reading and agreeing to the text? Can you identify any “spin”?
Many people think they are able to identify bias, when in fact they are simply good at agreeing with those they agree with, never even realizing that the version of events they’ve taken in is not strictly the whole truth. Particularly if you’re looking for information on politics, history, culture, matters of ethics or any controversial topics where large amounts of money are involved, pay careful attention.
Besides, many topics in these fields don’t quite have an objective answer at all. There is no right answer to whether one system of ethics is better than the other, or whether a particular culture has any “advantages” over a different one. In such cases, you’ll need to deliberately seek out counterarguments. Examine expert analysis from many points of view—different authors, news sites, and so on. Actively challenge your own assumptions and ask whether what you’re reading is fact or opinion.
Based on your findings, form an informed opinion by yourself and continue seeking material that might potentially challenge it.
How would the issue at hand change in a different time, place or context? Critical thinking is difficult to master and requires strict intellectual standards, but you also don’t want to veer into suspicious conspiratorial thought patterns!
Example: You may want to verify whether something a politician said is factually correct. However, you discover that some sources believe it to be factual while others deem it a lie. In such cases, examine the reasons behind a source’s agreement or disagreement with the original statement and make your own judgement.
As the name suggests, method refers to the way in which research or a given text goes about making its central point. As you read, ask yourself questions like this. Is the methodology of research clear here? Are these methods easily understandable? Was their use appropriate in the given context?
Do not assume that all published material follows sound methods of argumentation. Evaluate the texts on your own and conclude for yourself whether the method used by the author is a good one or not.
P is for provenance
The internet is a strange thing—the information appears as if by magic in front of our eyes. In the past, words deemed worthy enough to be printed in ink and read were assumed to have a certain authority; but today, words and ideas are ubiquitous. Provenance means asking who wrote this, and why? It means considering the source of information.
Though it’s true that credentials don’t automatically make an author correct or remove their biases, it’s an extra bit of trust gained if an author is transparent about who they are, what their interests are, and what qualifies them to write what they do. Opinions are opinions, but it’s fair to rank more highly the educated and considered perspective of experts than those who merely have an opinion.
Here, the context also matters. You might seek only peer-reviewed journals and recent research from medical experts in trying to understand your diagnosis, but you may have a completely different set of criteria when on a support group forum that allows patients to share their personal stories.
Look at who published something and why. If you read a pamphlet about the health benefits of drinking milk, but find out that it was written by a doctor employed by a major dairy company and published by a “research group” that is really a dairy lobby in disguise, you can take the information with a pinch of salt. Such conflicts of interest are often declared by the publishing entity, so make sure to look out for those clarifications to know the intentions of an author.
Example: You may be searching for some academic material relating to a topic on social sciences that you have extremely limited knowledge of. As such, you’re unaware of which authors might be well-reputed or trustworthy. In such cases, having a large number of citations is a reliable indicator of the influence of an article or paper within a particular sub-field. This is because citations indicate that others have incorporated that article into their own work, and have likely found it helpful for their own purposes.
T is for timeliness
The world moves fast. Information that is correct and fair one moment is not so a minute later. While some knowledge holds its value over the decades, other areas are developing rapidly, and you should take care to seek out information that is new and current.
For example, if the topic is the economy, the Coronavirus pandemic, the value of various cryptocurrencies, climate change or various political happenings, you’ll need information that is up to date.
Be aware of when something was published and spare a thought for the fact that new information may have since emerged to make that information less valuable than it first appears. However, this still doesn’t prohibit you from partaking in more general and classic material that will help you better interpret current events.